A shop assistant at Old Navy tossed this line at me while I was waiting for The Sprog to try on clothes in the fitting rooms. (As a side complaint, no 10-year-old should be wearing women’s clothing. It’s The Boffin’s fault and his freakishly tall side of the family.)
I countered with, “No, I lived in England before I met him. He married me because I knew how to make a proper cup of tea.”
Then I had to explain the English Tea Ceremony.
I don’t think she understood my point.
What else could I have said in response to this?
“Actually, he married me for my accent. My Philly suburban honk radiates class and sophistication in his culture.”
“It was a marriage of convenience. He needed to escape the oppressive dictatorial regime in the United Kingdom.”
“My husband is actually the 12th Lord of Southampton. We are just shopping at Old Navy to keep his cover.”
“Yes, I did marry him for his accent. But when I finally listened to what he actually said, it was too late.”
My American in-laws and I had the pleasure of seeing the Chicago production of Kinky Boots yesterday. Those in the U.K. would know the title as the 2005 movie based upon the true story of a man who inherited his father’s shoe factory in Northamptonshire and turned to making footwear for drag queens and transvestites to save the company from going under. Well, what I saw was the Tony-award winning musical crafted in the hands of Cyndi Lauper’s music and lyrics and Harvey Fierstein’s dialogue.
I started to panic when one of the actors came on the stage, in character, and performed a monologue on his cell phone about how he had to go to work in the shoe factory and the audience needed to shut their phones down. It would have been really clever, if there weren’t slips in the accent punctuated with a distinctive honk in his voice when he said “wanker”. It only got worse from there. What I heard afterwards was a cacophony of various approximations of English accents. Some of the actors did their homework. Others weren’t up to the challenge.
And I am sure some of you are asking why I am being so picky. Well, let me explain. The characters were supposed to be born and raised in Northamptonshire, and they occasionally travelled to London as a counterpoint. So, this was not a musical that could be just set anywhere. It wasn’t something like Shakespearean play that could be molded into different settings. There was a lot emphasis about how they were in a “small town” of Northampton with a dying shoe industry. (It’s only a city of 212,000 people. Lauper and Fierstein did not get a good enough grip on England to get their facts straight and build up the tension of what was going on. It made me wish Eddie Izzard was part of the project.) If these characters are flittering around with their voices, how am I supposed to believe the story they are telling, when I have lived amongst the real people?
My fellow Americans, imagine sitting in a theater in London, and you are seeing a musical set in Atlanta cast with British actors. Let’s say this a musical where the setting and context is crucial, say the Civil Rights era. Imagine what you hear is some of the actors sounding like Cooter from the Dukes of Hazzard after downing a fifth of Jack. Others have the Midwestern neutral accent that you hear on the national newscasts, but quite a few of them regress back into their regular regional voices every third word. Meanwhile, there are the few gems who nail it, and you just want to run onto the stage and kiss them. That was my experience yesterday.
Maybe the best thing we can call this is Dick Van Dyke Syndrome. In the U.K., the benchmark of an American doing a shite English accent is Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. Everyone else is measured against him. Even the Boffin asked me, “Were they as bad as Dick Van Dyke?” when I gave my review. For the record, some of them were better. Some of them were worse.
I am only discussing theater, but we can certainly extrapolate this point into movies and TV. And we have heard our fair share of British actors who have mangled American accents. Exhibit A: Sean Connery in The Untouchables. You mean to tell me he was supposed to be Chicago Irish when Chicago permeated every pore of that movie? Exhibit B: Ewan MacGregor in Big Fish. His deep Alabama drawl is absolutely pathetic in comparison to Albert Finney’s older version of the same character. It somewhat undercuts the credibility of the story. Of course, the bad accents did not completely ruin the movies, but having the main actors nail the accents would have improved them.
I know I am being negative about the whole accent business, but I promise you I wasn’t sitting through the whole show stewing about the voices. Trust me, the choreography by Jerry Mitchell and the musical numbers were fantastic everything you want from Broadway. In fact, I told my in-laws I wanted Kinky Boots to be a rock-n-roll opera to avoid the accent issue entirely. I am just thinking that those extra details would have made the experience better for me, especially since my in-laws treated me to a very expensive theater ticket. I felt guilty that I wasn’t getting their money’s worth.
But I am in the minority. I ended up doing a little research about accents in theater and came up with two interesting articles in the New York Times and the Guardian. If you only have time to read one, read the Guardian one. In summary of what the article said, actors and directors are in a no-win situation regarding accents. What the actors were doing on stage were basically what the American audience expected. Basically, it expects Dick Van Dyke. (I have my work cut out for me to debunk a lot of British misconceptions.) Sometimes the directors tell the actors not to go for accuracy to avoid criticism for not doing the voices correctly enough. It’s better to miss the archery target completely than to aim for the bullseye and only hit the red. Meanwhile, those of us more familiar with the nuances have to suffer.
Do accents matter to you when you are watching entertainment? Why or why not?
Normally, the New York Times gets a lot right, but, like all newspapers, they come out with fluff pieces that makes you wonder if they just want to test to see how stupid the American public really is. Just picture the editorial meetings.
“I found a study that says there is a correlation between high cheese consumption and improvement in SAT scores. I have a couple of experts to give a few quotes.”
“Let’s run it. The teenagers of the U.S. will be constipated in no time.”
This round of stupid comes in the form of a “how to” article, namely How to Fake a British Accent. Click on the link. Yes, it’s the New York Times, and I am not making this up.
Sigh. Where to start with this?
Well, what is a “British” accent? The accent Malia Wollan is writing about is the neutral Queen’s English accent commonly used in media called Received Pronunciation. Her advice is to watch BBC programming and videos featuring English politicians. Considering what Americans get over here television-wise, maybe they can sound like a cantakerous dowager who cannot answer a straight question. That will certainly make them popular.
Of course, if Ms. Wollan is to go by, the U.K. only has one accent and could not have developed any regional or national differences in the way they speak. But the video below certainly has a different take.
Ms. Wollan tells us to “go undercover” to try out our “new patois”. We should do things like shop or order in a restaurant to see if we can pass ourselves off as the Duke and Duchess of Macclesfield. She admonishes us to “Practice until nothing can jar you out of it, not even a sex scene or a close call with an oncoming taxi.”
I would love to see an American try this and meet an actual Briton or someone who has lived in the U.K. Because we love small talk over here, and when we hear someone with an accent, we will ask about their origins, especially if we have similar ones. I know I do. It’ll be fun to watch the fraud squirm like the worm he or she is.
Faking a British accent begs the question…why would you want to do this in the first place apart from preparing for a role as an actor? To sound classier and more intelligent? Are you in a con game like Amy Adams in American Hustle? Federal Witness Protection Program? Got a good deal on an earldom at Big Seb’s House o’ Titles?
So, Ms. Wollan, let me put this to you directly. To coin a real British expression, you are off your trolley.
All you are doing is advising Americans to insult English people. Notice I am saying English, not British, because there is nothing Irish, Welsh, or Scottish about this accent you are promoting. That is an insult of omission, and in this case, the other three ethnicities got off lucky.
By telling Americans that, by taking on English accents, they can join in and embody what is good about English culture is pure nonsense. Accent does not an ethnicity make. Life in the U.K. is not a BBC drama, so stop romanticizing it and making it something it is not. Remember that you are dealing with real people and not characters on a screen that you can emulate for this season’s fashion. Imitation is not flattering in this case. It is mockery.
And, if you don’t think so, talk to people like my husband who gets sick and tired of people fawning over his accent in this country and not listening to what he is actually saying.
You are also indirectly telling anyone else who does not have an English accent that their speaking voices are not good enough. That is just as offensive. Because the truth is, if anyone wants to sound classier and more intelligent, maybe more work should go into the substance of one’s speech rather than the accent.
The Boffin hears this quite a bit, being the British part of This British-American Life. It’s mostly from women and non-American men. It conjures visions of tea and crumpets, Downton Abbey, high class, elegance, and intelligence. Huzzah! I know this because I would be saying the same thing had I not lived in Old Blighty myself.
When I was living in England and travelled around the rest of the UK, when I opened my mouth and people figured out I was American, many said complimentary things to me. They talked about the vacations they had, their American friends and relatives, and the things they liked about my culture. Some even dreamed about emigrating to the States. However, not one person said a thing about my accent. Fair enough. I grew up in a town sandwiched between Philadelphia and New York. People from my area don’t speak so much as honk. I am also sure many Britons wanted me to come with volume and mute buttons, but that is a separate post entirely.
Back to the Boffin and his tendency to make drive-thru workers swoon just by saying, “May I have large Diet Coke, please?”. Of course, what these people don’t see is that he is a human being, not a fictional character. He is an engineer who exhibits some of the stereotypes associated with those within that profession.
His default attitude toward his personal appearance is, “I don’t have to look at me.” But since he is a loving, caring husband, he will fix any issues that bother me in a timely fashion. (“You have yak breath.” “I love you too. I’ll go brush.”)
This is the guy who came home to tell me the following:
“The Bing Maps camera van was out while I was driving home, and I think they caught me with my finger in my nose.”
Needless to say (but I will say it anyway), he is an endless source of entertainment and makes me laugh every day.
The Boffin has basically turned our backyard into a fruit and vegetable farm with the use of spreadsheets, higher level maths, and automated irrigation systems. Even though this is a massive project that is mostly his own, he has never railroaded me and includes me in every major decision all along the way because we are equals in our marriage. And we love each other to bits.
This is not Fitzwilliam Darcy, nor do I want him to be.
In other words, I don’t have a gentleman. I have a gentle man, which is even better.